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Grow or die? Yes, but do it right, says Shiffman

Ron Shiffman, founder of the influential Pratt Institute Center for Community and Environmental Development (PICCED, now the Pratt Center for Community Development) and former City Planning Commissioner, has always been a community planner. So he took advantage of a prominent platform last night to offer some useful history of housing reform and some ambitious proposals for a more democratic city.

His prescriptions: more than double the amount of affordable housing planned by the Bloomberg administration, a time-out on major developments like Atlantic Yards, and a new emphasis on taming the market to achieve equity and diversity.

The occasion was the annual Ratensky Lecture sponsored by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) New York Chapter, in honor of Samuel Ratensky (1910-1972), a progressive architect and housing official in New York and a mentor to many. Shiffman’s title: “Beyond the Marketplace: Towards an Equitable Housing Program. The setting: the Center for Architecture in Greenwich Village.

“Housing policy cannot be distilled into a simple sound bite or set of catchy slogans,” Shiffman allowed. “New York City, because of its geographic and demographic diversity, needs a broad and complex set of policies to address its housing and community development needs.”

Grassroots groups key

Shiffman reminded his audience of architects and planners that it was community groups in the 1970s and 1980s that helped reverse neighborhood decline. Even as banks had redlined the neighborhoods, such groups demonstrating the need to stem the tide of abandonment, and renovate buildings. They pushed for changes in insurance laws to discourage owner-sponsored arson, and they developed new ways to finance the rehabilitation of housing.

“They demonstrated that a comprehensive housing policy must be comprised of a combination of tenant protections, preservation strategies, and development that includes both rehabilitation and new construction,” said Shiffman, emphasizing that such strategies are interdependent.

He recalled the formation in Bedford-Stuyvesant of the country’s first Community Development Corporation (CDC), a new institution to take action when neither the private sector nor the government could do so.

Not anti-development

Shiffman said that community-based housing organizations have, in partnerships, sponsored and renovated more than 80,000 units of housing—setting the stage for private investment. Community-based developers, community organizers and environmental justice advocates are not anti-development, he stressed.

However, they have fought “against badly conceived public and private development projects -- urban renewal projects, Westway and the Lower Manhattan Expressway of the past,” he said, pointing to today’s fights against “Forest City Ratner’s ill-conceived and out-dated 60’s urban renewal proposal tarted up in an oversized titanium dress and Columbia University’s arrogant expansion into Manhattanville.” (He’s on the advisory board of Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn.)

Shiffman acknowledged that a reflexive dependence on “community design” can be counterproductive, if professionals don’t engage in dialogue. “True decision-making and true empowerment arise from choosing among informed alternatives,” he said. “How can the important issues and values that transcend any particular community be put on the agenda? How else can we confront exclusionary and discriminatory policies and practices, particularly when they masquerade as market decisions or, in some cases, as a misrepresentation of the desire to preserve the character of an area?”

Saving Stuy Town?

Shiffman criticized the city administration’s decision to sit out the sale of Stuyvesant Town, calling it more cost effective for middle-income residents to live in the outer boroughs: “So much for diversity, so much for maintaining New York City’s heterogeneity--let Manhattan, dominated by policies of economic determinism, continue its trend to becoming a borough of the super-rich and the super-poor.”

Under the “luxury decontrol” provision of the rent regulations, added in 1994, landlords can deregulate units that rent for more than $2000 when they become vacant, or when the tenants have earned at least $175,000 for two consecutive years. The average rent in Manhattan is now $2400 a month. Moreover, the annual increases granted by the city’s Rent Guidelines Board would lift that $2000 figure to $2995, and if indexed to rent increases, it would go to $3300. So he called for the city and state to raise the ceiling on stabilized rents to $3300 and index it to the housing increases.

Also, though it may be seem too late, he called for the city and state governments to offer capital funds and tax incentives to maintain about half of the units in stabilization. One tactic, he said, might be to place a surcharge on higher-income families occupying rent stabilized units to support a housing trust fund—but not to lose that rent-regulated apartment.

421-a tweak

The 421-a tax abatement program is due for an overhaul, but a mayoral task force recently recommended that an affordability requirement be extended only to small parts of the outer boroughs, essentially maintaining a gentrification subsidy in for development in thriving areas like Park Slope and Fort Greene.

“Why not allow the tax-abatement provision to go only to developers who are building 100 percent affordable housing?” Shiffman asked. New taxes could be steered to affordable housing.

Holding onto housing

While there are 77,000 units of HUD-assisted housing in the City of New York, much of that under the Section 8 program that subsidizes rents, 33,000 units may be lost from the program in the next five years. That means numerous families face the risk of displacement. While a new city law, the Tenant Empowerment Act, gives tenants and not–for–profit organizations the right to purchase Section 8 developments, such groups need financial, technical, and legal resources.

Shiffman said city should set aside $75-$100 million for use by tenants and community groups to convert such at-risk developments to permanent affordable housing. And the city and professional organizations must advocate that HUD maintain support for such housing.

New development for whom?

New development is crucial because of a shortfall in housing and the steady growth of the city’s population. An unreleased study conducted by planner Alex Garvin has recommended that the city build platforms over railyards and highways for new developments.

However, he warned that the city must not build only for the wealthy. Land currently zoned for manufacturing must be protected—and the city may develop new industries for components needed for green development. Given the large numbers of families seeking public housing—140,000, with an average wait of eight years—most new development must be for low-, moderate-, and middle-income housing, he said.

He called for a balance regarding density, saying that in some areas it’s too little, while in other areas it could be burdensome.

ESDC warnings

Shiffman warned that the Atlantic Yards proposal Columbia University’s proposed expansion “undermine our future ability to undertake the proper planning and development of these kinds of needed mega-projects,” calling them “the culture and codification of cronyism.” Both lack “the necessary participatory processes to develop a program, land-use plan, set of urban design guidelines and a transparent selection process.”

Shiffman’s not against eminent domain—which he said should be used only after a public planning process and when the public purposes is clear--or even the ESDC. “As planners, we know that eminent domain and the power of public authorities, properly crafted and used, can be important tools to address public purposes,” he said. “But the abuse of eminent domain feeds a public sentiment that could lead to a complete backlash.” Given a right-leaning Supreme Court, he said, “we may lose an important tool because we’ve misused it in these cases.”

He called for Eliot Spitzer, the presumptive next governor, to convene a working group to examine emerging large-scale development projects and review projects in the pipeline so they “are not hastily pushed through at the 11th hour prior to Governor Pataki’s departure from office.” (He last month called for such a time-out.)

The ESDC and its parent the Urban Development Corporation, he said, “should be restructured to meet its original purpose honoring Martin Luther King,” to “promote low-income affordable and mixed-income racially integrated housing,” among other things.

New policies

The state and the feds must do more, Shiffman said, but “the city can’t wait for other levels of government to act.” He suggested that the city could draw on a variety of sources to commit at least $12 billion to preserve and build affordable housing over ten years. This could upgrade at least 100,000 units and produce at least 300,000 new units—more than double the mayor’s $7.5 billion plan to create and preserve 165,000 affordable units.

He called for 50 percent of all new housing be affordable—a model in some other “world cities”--based on a combination of incentives, capital subsidies and regulations be adopted to achieve this objective. Where could the money come from? A housing trust fund could include funds from Battery Park City, PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes) from major developments, surcharges on real estate transactions, and other sources.

Grow or die?

Shiffman encouraged the audience to lobby their elected representatives to put affordable housing on the agenda—and to call for a time-out on poorly planned development. What, he was asked, should be said to officials like Senator Charles Schumer who express a “grow or die” sentiment?

(Schumer last May denounced critics of new development as "the culture of inertia, this small group of self-appointed people.")

“You do grow or die,” Shiffman responded. “But you have to grow right. You fight for qualitative development, not quantitative development.”

Another interlocutor lamented decreasing government and public support for social and economic integration. “Too much of what we’re doing is surrendering to cynicism,” Shiffman said, citing those who say “it’s a done deal” regarding Atlantic Yards or say “it’s the market” regarding the sale of Stuyvesant Town.

“The markets are conditioned by public policies,” he said. “I have greater faith in people.” And, he said, he would be in contact with Spitzer's transition team.


  1. Shiffman is a nitwit if he thinks New York City should build more subsidized housing for people who don't have money when there are long lines of willing people with enough money to pay market rates for their real estate.

    Affluent people pay taxes and spend money. They are a net benefit to the cities in which they live. Too many subsidized citizens are create net debts for their cities.

    Why would anyone want to put out the welcome mat for people who will dig a deeper fiscal hole for the city?


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